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The polymath advantage | Just Reflections - Issue #32
What do the following people have in common?
Leonardo Da Vinci,
You could say this is a list of impactful individuals. But something you might not know is that this is also a list of polymaths.
Many cultures and languages warn against being a generalist. I’m sure you can think of a few clever phrases and proverbs coined as a warning. The most popular one being
“Jack of all trades, master of none.”
Some other interesting ones I came across are, “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” from the Chinese people and “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger” from Estonia.
So what’s going on here? If being a generalist is the path to mediocrity, why is it that many of the most impactful contemporary and historical figures were generalists? Are these people just statistical anomalies or is there some correlation between being a generalist and being an impactful individual?
What is a polymath?
Wikipedia defines a polymath as follows:
A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”; Latin: homo universalis, “universal human”) is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
Polymaths can bring together knowledge from multiple disparate disciplines to come up with creative solutions to problems. This makes them more effective in their core field (they usually still have a core field). Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge in their own discipline.
The polymath approach is sometimes referred to as T-shaped learning, as illustrated below.
A very well-known contemporary polymath is Elon Musk. He’s successfully been able to combine knowledge of physics, engineering, programming, design, manufacturing and business to create several multi-billion dollar companies in completely different fields. Think about it:
PayPal - Multinational financial technology and online payments
SpaceX - Aerospace manufacturing, space transport, and communications
Tesla - Electric vehicles and clean energy
Neuralink - Neurotechnology and artificial intelligence
The Boring Company - Infrastructure and tunnel construction services
It’s quite intriguing that all these highly innovative and wildly different companies have one man as their common factor. Similar things can be seen with other founders of other large companies like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Page.
I’ve also been a bit of a polymath. In my career, I’ve been able to combine knowledge of civil engineering, geographic information sciences and software programming to distinguish myself. When I was a practising civil engineer, I used my programming knowledge to build software solutions that eased our workflows and won us back some valuable hours. When I was working in GIS, my civil engineering knowledge gave me a deeper domain knowledge and my programming knowledge allowed me to build automation for many of the tedious tasks I had to perform, buying me time to focus on other things. And now, as a software engineer, my civil engineering background gives me a unique perspective on project management and problem-solving. I wrote more about that here. I only went to school for one of these skills. The others came through curiosity and a passion for learning.
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo da Vinci.
In today’s world, diverse interests are not a curse, they’re a blessing. Being a polymath instead of a specialist is an advantage, not a weakness.
But is this a formula that anyone can follow? I think so. Here’s why we should all strive to be polymaths.
Getting good at an atypical combination of two or more skills can create unique opportunities.
Becoming the best at one specific thing is really difficult and is reserved for the very talented. However, all of us can become very good at two or more skills. Scott Adams, the creator of the popular comic strip Dilbert, said this while commenting about his work;
“Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.” — Scott Adams
According to researcher Brian Uzzi in the KelloggInsight article titled, “A Virtuous Mix Allows Innovation to Thrive: The right mixture balances conventionality, novelty, and collaboration.” Across a majority of disciplines, the most impactful papers—those capable of setting, or resetting, the research agenda of an entire field—are increasingly being produced by teams. But not just any teams, teams made up of members from across multiple disciplines. Collaboration fosters more creative and novel research.
It’s easier and faster than ever to become competent at a new skill
One advantage of our modern knowledge society is that there are easy ways to learn about just about anything. There is an abundance of free or affordable content from the world’s top experts in every medium you can think of. You can even access lectures from Ivy League schools for free on the internet through various open courseware platforms. As Michael Simmons puts it:
This is the golden era for people who value learning, are willing to invest in themselves, and who are disciplined enough to take action on their own. — Michael Simmons
I’ve already mentioned that I never went to school for programming and GIS. All the knowledge I have has been gained primarily from free resources online. I can’t imagine what teaching myself GIS and programming would have been like before YouTube. Even if I got someone to teach me they likely would not have been one of the world-class thought leaders in the industry. If they were, I wouldn’t have been able to afford their time. Through YouTube, I’ve learnt from industry leaders and my career has grown to extents I never even dreamed of. Mine is just one of innumerable stories of people who’ve transformed their lives and those of many others through skills they acquired freely and easily on the internet.
It truly is the golden age of people who value learning.
New fields, industries and skillsets are being pioneered every day: build your own career
While the explosion of knowledge is making it impossible or at least more difficult for anyone to know everything, it has also made it easier to find one big, non-conventional combination of fields or skills. It’s easier than ever to be a polymath.
Below are a few of the many thousands of fields that were created very recently through combination:
Today, more than ever, the opportunity exists to create your own career. Some of my favourite YouTubers are people who combine their knowledge from their niche disciplines and interests with their love for making videos. Examples like Vertasium, The Film Theorists, and 3 Brown 1 Blue come to mind. In fact, the very idea that “YouTuber” is now a career option is also a testament to this point.
Future-proof your career
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” -Charles Darwin
We don’t know what skills will be important in 20 years. Whatever they’ll be, polymaths will be much better positioned for it.
A polymath can take the skills they have learned and combine them in new ways quickly to master new fields. In an environment of accelerating change, we’re going to have to become adept at learning new skills and finding creative ways of combining them to create value.
You can have the most valuable skill set on the planet, but if everyone else has it, you’re just a commodity. By becoming a polymath and developing a unique skill set that few others have, then you’ll be able to differentiate yourself.
The bottom line
Specialists are vulnerable to getting trapped by their own success. They establish a limited skill set and reputation, for which they are well compensated. But their careers are fragile. As their jobs disappear or evolve, it becomes increasingly difficult to switch professions without having to start over.
Polymaths, on the other hand, are described by Nassim Taleb as “anti-fragile.” Changes in the environment help to strengthen them. When new business paradigms emerge or their passions change, they can quickly combine their existing skill sets in a variety of ways.
Today’s issue was mostly a summary of Michael Simmons‘ article on Medium titled, “People Who Have “Too Many Interests” Are More Likely To Be Successful According To Research” so if you want to see the original thing without my commentary and personal experiences check out the original article over there.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July
Broke below 78.5kg this week. I think I’m also regaining my mojo and managing my caloric intake well again. I’m still not worried about hitting this goal. I think I’m still on track.
Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day
Averages this week:
Duration: 7h 34m.
Avg. bedtime: 03:18.
Avg. wake-up time: 10:52.
This week was much better. Hopefully the start of many good ones.
Business: Start a business in 2022
I did little on pro-search this week because my week was incredibly busy on many other fronts. Hoping to get more done this coming week. I’m working on an article for the Offerzen blog about pro-search so if you’re interested in learning more about it keep an eye out for that.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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